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Comeback Kids

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

Everyone should have known something about the Tampa Bay Lightning after the second game of the regular season. No atmosphere, no challenge was too difficult. There was no deficit too large.

It was the home opener for the Montreal Canadiens, a homecoming for Lightning coach Guy Boucher and many of his players for their first road game of the season. Soon, they were down 2-0 as the crowd at the Bell Centre hit a fever pitch.

The Bolts battled back with one goal and then Marty St. Louis tied it in the third period. Just 31 seconds later, the Habs had the lead back with 8:35 left. The Lightning refused to fold. Steven Stamkos tied it with 1:19 left and Ryan Malone won it in overtime.

It was the first of many comebacks, some to grab important points, some to gain huge victories. But none were better than Saturday, when the Lightning got off the canvas and roared back from a 3-0 first-period deficit to beat the Boston Bruins 5-3 and even the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece.

“You just have to believe that it’s possible to do,” said Lightning wing Simon Gagne, who scored the winning goal. “When you do that, you never know what can happen.”

Teddy Purcell, who scored twice in the second period, said the Lightning has been in this situation many times and they have learned from their experiences.

With every comeback, the Bolts gained confidence.

*Down 3-1 against Pittsburgh Oct. 27 after allowing two shorthanded goals on the same shift, they rebounded to win, 5-3.

*Trailing 2-0, 5-3 and 7-5 at Philadelphia Nov. 18, they came back to win an epic battle, 8-7.

*Behind 3-1 at Toronto with 12 minutes remaining Nov. 30, they tied the game with 9 seconds left and won 4-3 in overtime.

*The Bolts outshot Edmonton 17-1 in the third period and got one by Nikolai Khabibulin to grind out a road point, Dec. 10.

*The next night in Vancouver, the Bolts surrendered a two-goal lead in the third, but gathered themselves, drew a penalty and won in overtime, 5-4.

*After perhaps their most discouraging loss of the season the night before against Ottawa, the Lightning scored twice in the final 7:25 to get a point at Florida, March 12.

The Lightning won seven games during the regular season when they trailed at the end of the first period and four when trailing after the second. In the playoffs, they have won four of 10 after trailing at some point during the game. In the third game of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Washington, the Bolts trailed 2-1 and 3-2 before scoring a pair within 24 seconds in the third period to win, 4-3.

“Everything’s habit,” Boucher said, after that game. “We’ve made a habit to believe in the third period we can make it happen. It’s all in the mind.”

Stamkos said after that game that the Lightning were not afraid to lose. They were hungry to win.

“They are uncanny,” Caps wing Mike Knuble said, after Game 3. “When they want to get a goal, it's like they just snap their fingers or hit a button. They just dial it up. You can see it. It's like they flip a switch. When they are down, it's just like they think, 'We know we are going to score.' I don't know what it is, it leaves you flabbergasted.”

Captain Vincent Lecavalier said it’s about character and determination. Goalie Mike Smith, who came off the bench to shut down the Bruins Saturday, said that never giving up has been a motto in the locker room all season.

At no time did they show that more than Saturday, when the Bruins capitalized on three turnovers to build a lead. The hill to climb was a mountain.  Boston was 6-0 when leading after the first period in the playoffs.

Gagne said they knew there was a lot of hockey left to play and remained positive. He said Boucher was calm during his speech between the first and second periods. They were talking about the first goal and how, after that, everything was possible.

“I think everybody knows we’ve been extremely resilient this year,” Boucher said. “Whether it starts from me, anyone on our staff or our leaders, [the players] do it. We came back so many times this year. In the third period, we keep coming. We knew we could do it.”

Boucher said, for whatever reason, the Lightning did not have enough energy in Game 3. Regardless of the deficit, he could see the Lightning were flying Saturday and had plenty gas for the final 40 minutes.

“If you know you have legs and you’ve got ammunition, you stick with it because eventually it should pay,” Boucher said. “But it’s a great comeback.”

They needed to get the first one, with a moment that changes the whole tone of the game. Malone provided that, by knocking down the 6 foot 9, 255-pound Zdeno Chara to cause a turnover and Purcell’s first goal.

“He’s a warrior,” Boucher said of Malone, who he awarded one of the coach’s stars of the game. “He pays the price. Sometimes you notice it, sometimes you don’t. We notice it every game, every shift. He inspires this team.”

The Lightning built off that inspiration and all it has learned. Purcell said they simply went out for the second period and executed, like they have all season.

“We’re going to play until that final buzzer,” Malone said. “Everybody – top to bottom – laid it on the line today.”

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